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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part six

Mya and Muhammad have found a place where they are allowed to live together. But leaving Palestine behind isn’t just a matter of geography, and new surroundings can be eerily — and dangerously — reminiscent of old ones. The final chapter.

Mya
Guarnieri

Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

We live with Mohammad’s brother for the first two months as I look for an apartment—a difficult thing to find in America when you’re both living off of your meager savings, your ex-husband has successfully wrecked your credit (long story), your foreign partner doesn’t have a social security number, and neither of you have proof of current employment.

In early October I see an advertisement on Craigslist for a house with three small bedrooms and hardwood floors. The pictures show a tidy, clapboard, whitewashed home, edged with mango and avocado trees. It’s located in a historic neighborhood. Best of all, it fits our modest budget of less than $1,000 a month—criteria that has only yielded, thus far, section eight housing in the ghetto. And there’s an option to buy from the owner—no money down, no banks—the right tenants can simply take over the mortgage. It seems too good to be true.

In South Florida, rentals can go within minutes of being listed—and some are snapped up “site unseen” meaning that the renter hasn’t seen the property in person—so I call right away. The landlord tells me to drive by the place first. If I’m still interested, he’ll show me the inside of the house.

“The neighborhood is,” he pauses and clears his throat, “eclectic.”

Mohammad and I go that evening. As we pull up at the address, we notice the rundown cars lining the other side of the street. A man is sitting in one of them, his parking lights on. Another man approaches the passenger side and leans in the open window. The two talk. Money and baggies change hands. A drug deal.

I notice the house in the background then. One of the windows is broken; some wooden two-by-fours have been hammered across the hole. The other windows are covered with heavy black fabric. It’s impossible to see what’s going on inside. A smashed TV is in the middle of the yard. Nearby, a man takes a shit next to some overgrown bushes. I wonder, for a moment, why he isn’t going behind the shrubbery. He stands and stumbles about. And then I realize:

“It’s a crack house,” I say to Mohammad. “That’s why this place is so cheap. It’s across the street from an active crack house.”

Still, I’m not ready to give up on the three-bedroom cottage with hardwood floors. I point towards the tidy white place. “But look. Our house is perfect. And if the neighborhood comes up, it’ll be a hell of an investment.”

Mohammad shakes his head. “I didn’t leave one war zone to move to another.”

“Maybe it’s not as bad during the day,” I push. “Let’s come back and see what the neighborhood looks like in the morning.”

We do. And, in the daylight, the crack house looks even worse.

I realize I’ve crossed the globe only to end up in a place that, in some ways, isn’t so different than the one I left.

“Okay,” I say, as we stand in the front yard of the rental home. “But if you put your back to the crack house and just look at our house…” I raise my arms and open them, gesturing towards the trees. “Look how green! It’s like we’re in the Caribbean. And there’s the mangoes and avocadoes—”

“Are you going to feel safe here alone while I’m at work?” Mohammad asks. “Are you going to want to go for a run in this neighborhood?”

“I ran in the West Bank.”

“It was safer there.”

I’m not ready to admit that yet. “Let’s walk around a bit and get a feel for the area.”

Mohammad obliges me. We link arms and move deeper into the neighborhood. The houses’ architectural details mark most of the houses as historic but many are boarded up. I admit to myself that this is a bad sign. Good things don’t happen in abandoned buildings. That the owners can’t rent or sell their properties doesn’t say anything too promising about the neighborhood.

“These houses would be a great long term investment, I’m sure,” I say.

Mohammad nods.

At the end of the street, we see a woman picking litter out of her yard. I approach her; she doesn’t speak any English. Spanish only—my long-neglected second language. I sweat and blush as I stumble my way through a clumsy conversation. Still, we manage to communicate: she lives in the neighborhood with her husband and children. I ask her if she feels safe here. She bends over to pick up a faded soda can. She stands up, puts the garbage a plastic grocery bag and offers me a weak smile and a wane “sí,” yes.

“You see?” I say to Mohammad as we walk away and I offer a literal translation. He didn’t understand our words but he picked up on the nuance of her movements and facial expressions; he offers me a skeptical “huh.”

The next block seems a little nicer and we see a house for sale. Just for fun, I call. The real estate agent cuts to the chase, “Look, I can find you a house on that part of the neighborhood—the west side of the main road—for thirty thousand dollars. But you won’t want to live there. Check out the east side. It’s much nicer.”

You know something’s wrong when a real estate agent is steering you away from his own listing.

I close the phone and report back to Mohammad. He interrupts before I can repeat the whole conversation. “And he said we should look on the other side of the main street.”

“How did you know?”

He smiles. “I did my research, dear.”

Mohammad leads me out of the west side, to the busy main road. We stand next to an empty lot, waiting for a break in traffic. I see liquor stores, parked taco vans, and storefront churches, including one named the Mount of Olives. English signs proclaim “We take EBT [food stamps] here!” The Spanish ones advertise “Money transfers to every country.”

On the other side of the vacant lot, I notice dozens of Hispanic men milling about. From their clothes and heavy work boots, I guess that they’re day laborers, waiting for potential employers to pull up. I think of south Tel Aviv’s parks, where African asylum seekers sometimes stand in wait of work. I remember the human rights worker who told me, in 2010, that the scene resembled “a slave market.”

I realize I’ve crossed the globe only to end up in a place that, in some ways, isn’t so different than the one I left.

There’s a pause in the flow of cars. Mohammad and I dart across the street. Just steps into the east side, I see the difference. There’s no litter in the lawns here, no crack houses, no boarded up windows, no chain link fences.

“How do you feel here?” Mohammad asks.

I have to admit that I’m more relaxed.

“Can you imagine yourself running in this neighborhood?”

I can.

“You see, dear? This is where we want to live,” he says.

***

A week later, I find a tiny studio in the “good part,” the east side, of the neighborhood. The landlady, Rebecca, tells me that she’s on her way out of town but Ada, a woman who lives across the street, has a key and will show me the place.

Ada lives in a one-story quadruplex less than a block from the Intracoastal Waterway. A wooden carving of the word “Love” hangs next to the door. Indian music and incense streams from her open windows. A post it note on the doorbell tells me that the buzzer doesn’t work. So I knock.

A tiny woman—she can’t be taller than 4’10”—with a shock of curly white hair opens the door. She wears jeans and a blue spaghetti strap top, revealing bone thin but toned arms. She lights a cigarette, takes a drag, and sizes me up.

“You here to see the place across the street?”

“Yes,” I say and introduce myself.

“Rebecca’s my friend,” Ada begins, pausing to take a pull off her cigarette. “So if you talk to her again, don’t tell her I said this, but it’s a shithole. And she’s asking too much. But let’s go.”

She closes the door behind her, locks it, and we head across the street, the Indian music fading as we move away from Ada’s apartment.

Rebecca’s house is surrounded by palm and banana trees; the plants are so dense it’s hard to see the building. Ada cracks open a side gate but it sticks as she pushes. We peer around it and see random things—a mildewed chair, some milk crates, empty Tupperware containers—piled on the other side. Together, we push the gate open enough to squeeze through and follow a sidewalk to a door. Ada unlocks it and we step inside.

“Look at this. You don’t want to live here,” Ada says. She’s like the anti-real estate agent.

The room is about 15 feet by 15 feet with a kitchen counter and a sink. There’s a small bathroom. A sliding glass door that leads to the back yard. I look up at the ceiling fan—there’s no AC—and notice the pitched ceiling and dark wood beams.

“I like the exposed beams,” I say.

Ada snorts as she lights another cigarette. “A month in this place and you’ll hang yourself from one. Trust me. You’re two—“

“And a cat.”

“Two and a cat. You need more room than this.”

“But the price is right,” I insist.

“She’s asking too much for this small a space,” Ada pushes back. “You’ll find something else.”

“But we’ve looked and looked.”

“So keep looking.”

I sigh.

As we leave, Ada invites me over for a coffee. She drinks Café Bustelo, the Cuban-style espresso that got me through graduate school. When I spy its trademark yellow can in her kitchen, I feel at home in a way I haven’t in months. But the feeling passes as quickly as it came.

***

The building is surrounded by a wall, there’s a guard and a gate—it reminds, a bit, of a settlement.

The apartment hunt continues. I find a couple of decent places but the next step is always a lengthy application—including a credit check, bank statements and pay stubs from the past three months, and local references. We have none of those things.

I feel like we’ll live in Mohammad’s brother’s guest room forever.

And then Ada calls, “Some neighbors just moved out. The place is perfect for you.” She doesn’t have the landlord’s number so she gives me the super’s instead.

When I arrive, I find a large two-story house that’s been subdivided into four apartments. The super, an older African American man named Robin, shows me the place: a galley kitchen, a space that can double as a living and dining room, a small bedroom, and a tiny bathroom with a stand-up shower. A park and the Intracoastal Waterway are, catty-corner, across the street. When the wind blows, I smell the saltwater.

It’s perfect.

Robin gives me the landlord’s wife’s number. Her accent is so heavy I have a hard time understanding her—I’ll learn from her husband, later, that they’re from Guyana, which he still refers to as “British Guiana”—but I make out that they’re in New York City visiting family and that they’ll be back in a week. “We get in Monday night,” she says. “Call me again on Tuesday morning.”

Before we hang up, I ask if there’s a rental application.

“No,” she laughs.

I’m thrilled.

The backyard of the house. (Photo by Mya Guarnieri)

The backyard of the house. (Photo by Mya Guarnieri)

The neighborhood is full of green spaces. While it’s a little rough—prostitutes congregate on the main road just a few blocks away, a few homeless people camp out in our park, burglaries are a problem, and I often find empty nickel bags and used needles on the ground—it’s relatively quiet and safe. Especially compared to the neighborhood on the other side of the main road.

We decide to get married in one of the many parks near our house and to have a small reception at home. Mohammad’s brother, my parents, and grandmother will come. Some friends from Gainesville will join us, too, and they generously offer to contribute a wedding cake. Mohammad and I will do the cooking. Excited, we start planning the menu.

I call the landlady back on Tuesday morning and tell her about Mohammad and myself. I’m honest and admit that he doesn’t have a social security number and I don’t have a job. As she and her husband were immigrants themselves, the woman is sympathetic. I’ll pay her cash every month and we’ll meet that afternoon for me to give her our first month’s rent and get the key in return.

A few hours before we’re supposed to meet, she calls me back.

“I’m very sorry but there was some sort of confusion with my husband,” she begins. “I didn’t know that he’d listed the place with a real estate agent.”

The agent already promised the apartment to someone; it’s not available after all.

There’s nothing to say. I thank her and hang up. Where will we get married? And forget about the wedding, where will we live?

The phone rings again later that afternoon. It’s the landlady.

“We went to meet the real estate agent and I didn’t like the way he looked. He had bad energy,” she says. “The place is yours.”

We seal the deal the following day with a handshake—the arrangement feels more West Bank than West Palm Beach.

***

As I spend the next three weeks getting the apartment ready, other minor miracles occur. Ada supplements her social security by cleaning apartments in what we call “the tower”—expensive condos that sit directly across the street from us, next to the park, perched on the Intracoastal Waterway. The building is surrounded by a wall, there’s a guard and a gate—it reminds, a bit, of a settlement.

One of Ada’s clients there has just bought a second condo in the building and it came completely furnished. But the new owners are gutting the place and dumping everything in it. Ada tells them about me and they say that I’m welcome to come by and take a look. I score some furniture, pots and pans, sheets and towels.

I find a great couch at Goodwill for 50 dollars. We paint. Our new home is ready before the wedding, as is the custom in Palestine.

We get married in another park a little further up the road. Smaller than the one by our house, it’s a long, thin stripe of green, edged by palm trees, running all the way to the water. We sign our Florida marriage license, a Muslim wedding document called a katib al ktab, and a Hebrew ketubah. We take our vows under a blue veranda, with my family, Mohammad’s brother, and a few dear friends from Gainesville looking on.

At home, during our little ten-person reception, I make a toast. I tell our guests that everything feels like a miracle: that we stayed together through the difficult year in the West Bank of crossing checkpoints and spending hours on the road; that we found this place; that we lost it and got it back; that we got the apartment ready in time; that we pulled together a wedding in three weeks. Our love—and our life together—feels like a miracle.

***

I’ll feel stupid that I didn’t put it all together sooner: the empty dime bags and needles I’d noticed in their yard.

Our new home—which is in a black and Latin neighborhood—reminds Mohammad of a refugee camp. Something about the place reminds me of south Tel Aviv. With a neighbor next to us and neighbors on top of us—and with our building wedged in between over-crowded duplexes and quadruplexes—we have little privacy. Because we don’t have proper AC, we keep our back door propped open. Our neighbors often appear in our doorway to borrow-some-sugar-borrow-some-milk-borrow-some-aluminum-foil-borrow-twenty-dollars-offer-some-pie-give-us-some-mangoes-from-a-brother’s-yard, mangoes-that-are-sweeter-than-the-ones-we-have-on-our-lot-and-here’s-a-pineapple-that-was-growing-in-the-yard-of-this-place-where-I-cut-the-grass-the-other-day-and-oh-did-you-hear-about-what-happened-with-our-other-neighbors-and-oh-I-heard-you’ve-got-shingles-here’s-something-for-your-skin.

My upstairs neighbor, Tania, drops the tube of medicine over the railing into my waiting hand.

They show up in our doorway to comment on our relationship, “So,” Ada begins, sucking on a cigarette. “You guys had an argument the other night…?”

“It’s been quiet lately,” Tania says on another occasion. “Things are going good, huh?”

I’m making jerk chicken one night on the stove, which is right by the backdoor, and the smell of the spices drifts up to Tania’s balcony.

She and her guest—a male visitor—lean over the railing.

“Girl, what you cookin’?”

“Let me guess,” her friend shouts. “That’s some jerk chicken.”

“That’s right,” I yell from the kitchen.

“Damn, smells good.”

When Robin, the super, passes our doorway he often remarks on my food. “You got it smellin’ good up in here, girl.”

Our back porch faces the parking lot. One afternoon, Clyde, our other upstairs neighbor, pulls in. When he gets out of the car he tells me, “Hey, I have an interview on Monday. What color tie do you think I should wear?”

“Blue?” I offer.

“My daughter says burgundy,” he says.

“Burgundy’s nice, too.”

When Monday comes, I ask Clyde how his interview went and what color tie he wore. He went with blue, he says, and he fills me in on the details of his day. On other occasions, he shares the local news about shootings on the west side of the neighborhood. In the summer of 2015, there’s a spate of them—gang violence—and Clyde gives the grim updates.

Still, we all feel safe over here.

I realize, though, that the neighborhood could tip in either direction. One spring night, I’m jerked out of sleep by gunshots—TAK TAK TAK—three in a row, one right after another. I don’t know where they’re coming from but I know they’re close; without thinking, I jump out of bed and lie flat on my stomach on the tile floor, below the windows.

“Mohammad!” I shout at him to get down, too. A heavy sleeper, he doesn’t wake up. I’m too scared to get back on the bed and shake him. I stay on the floor until I feel certain that it was just those three gunshots, that whatever happened outside is over.

One of our neighbors in the quadruplex next to us—not Ada’s building but the one that’s painted a cheerful Tweety-bird-yellow—is a drug dealer. I’ll discover this during one of the many screaming matches he has with his baby’s mother, when she’ll shriek that she’s tired of people coming round all the time to buy from him. I’ll feel stupid that I didn’t put it all together sooner: the empty dime bags and needles I’d noticed in their yard, that strange white couple that lingered on the man’s back porch one afternoon. They took turns ducking down behind the low wall that runs along the steps while the other one kept watch, round eyes peering out from gaunt, sweaty faces.

So the five of us in our building—we watch out for each other and the friends among us. When Ada’s dog dies, we all pay our sympathies. When Robin falls into a depression after the landlord threatens to kick him out—locking himself in the apartment for days, only to emerge to ride his bike to the liquor store and back—Ada and Tania get worried. Via phone, we conspire as to who will check on Robin and what we should do if things get worse.

Fortunately, the fog lifts. Robin returns to our shared back porch, where he spends most of the mornings and evenings drinking. Robin stays on top of the weather updates and shares the daily and weekly forecasts with me almost every morning. We talk about music (Motown, Curtis Mayfield), life, love—Robin has never been married but he has loved. Three times. He tells me about each of the women. We talk about my cat. We talk about gardening. Robin admires our plants and gives me tips. I marvel at the mango and guava trees he plants; they seem to shoot up overnight.

Robin tells me about growing up in West Palm Beach, about what things used to be like here, about how the first black people here were runaway slaves who joined the Indians to fight the white settlers. Robin tells me about his regrets—the days he sold drugs. He tells me how he’s one of seven boys and how out of all of them only his littlest brother made it. The youngest is a software engineer who owns a home; he’s the pride of the family.

We talk about God. Robin has a lot to say about Jesus.

Robin tells me all of this in an accent that I remember from my childhood—his mother grew up in Gainesville, where she lives today. The music in Robin’s voice reminds me of the kids on the bus, only he doesn’t call me “white girl,” he calls me by my name.

Clyde drives a school bus during the week and a tourist trolley on the weekend. During a cold snap, a petite woman forgets her denim jacket on the trolley. Clyde brings it to me.

Six months later, during the summer mango season, our landlord will steal milk crates off of Clyde’s porch to hold the fruit he’s stripped from our tree. It’s scandalous and we all stand outside by our respective apartments talking about it—Tania and Clyde hollering from upstairs, Robin and Mohammad and I shouting up to them from below. But our shared indignation gives way to laughter—this man owns over a dozen properties in West Palm Beach and New York City and God knows where else and here he is taking our mangoes and using Clyde’s milk crates. He’s so stingy it’s funny.

As Mohammad and I take our seats on the porch, he smiles and shakes his head. “It’s like Dheisheh here,” he says. “We can’t escape Palestine.”

***

But it’s not Palestine.

Sometimes, I fall into memories from the places I lived. My footsteps on the stairs as I walked up to my old, fourth-floor apartment on Sheinken and Allenby. The sound of the key in the lock, the door shutting behind me. The smell of the basil plants I grew in discarded olive tins from the shuk. Sudden winter rain, the sound the latches made as I closed the windows. Music, conversation, and laughter floating up from the wine bar on King George, a tiny place I can see from my balcony.

The ding-ding of the Jerusalem light rail. Wind in the pine trees. The cold walk from the train stop—the last on the line—to my apartment, the gate squeaking open, the door sliding across the wood laminate floor. Sitting on the wall next to my apartment on Friday evening, watching the sun fall into the Jerusalem forest. Shabbat’s curtain of quiet. Jackal’s mournful cries, drifting over the hills at night.

Those flocks of tiny black birds that put on aerial shows in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon. Their swoops and dives, their excited chatter.

I realize I must leave Israel and Palestine behind. Or at least find a way to contain them. My life literally depends on it.

Having tea with Mohammad on the roof of my apartment building in Abu Dis. Watching children play in the streets below. Bethlehem’s stones. The smell of the wood-burning oven at the bakery across my second sublease there; the sounds of the family who lived across the small, narrow street. The call of those same birds I heard in Tel Aviv.

Mohammad’s key in the lock on Fridays, the door closing behind him as he entered. The sound of wedding in the surrounding neighborhoods—horns honking, the music, the celebratory gunshots. The musaharati.

I say I “fall” into these memories because that’s what it feels like. I stumble upon them and am pulled into a hole where I am completely surrounded, where I see nothing but the world around me, the maps inside my head. I trace my route from my apartment in Bethlehem to the bus station where I would board the service to Abu Dis. Or I follow the stones to the dukkan down the street, where I would buy al-Juneidi white cheese. I’m entering the store, saying “kif halak?” to the owner, walking to the cooler. I’m taking a container out and heading towards the counter. I’m paying, stepping out onto the sidewalk. Home is just up the street.

This happens once as I’m driving towards a red light. I don’t see the intersection or the cars ahead. I don’t see the grassy median on my left or the lane on my right. I’m overcome by a memory—Bethlehem’s stones. I see them and the deep yellow they take on in the late afternoon. The long shadows in the garden. The almond tree. My bench. Dheisheh.

“Red light,” a voice whispers in my ear.

The trance is broken. I look up and gasp as I realize I’m flying towards an intersection and that the light, is indeed, red. I slam on the brakes. Tires squeal to a halt.

Later, I wonder about that voice. Was it my subconscious or something divine? Whatever it was, I understand it as a wake-up call. I realize I must leave Israel and Palestine behind. Or at least find a way to contain them. My life literally depends on it.

***

Mohammad seems to adapt better than I do, maybe because, as a Palestinian, his life was much harder under occupation than mine was as an American-Israeli who chose to live in the West Bank. Sure, we both lost time and productivity on the road moving between cities. We both went through checkpoints. But, unlike Mohammad, a soldier never pointed at me and asked me to get out of the service so they could search me. Unlike Mohammad, a soldier never held a gun to my face and threated to put a “bullet in the head.” Policemen from the Palestinian Authority never beat me. I didn’t carry a green ID; I could go to the sea whenever I wanted.

Mohammad carries even less here—after years of making sure that he didn’t leave the house without his wallet, which always included his green ID, he doesn’t carry a wallet anymore. He no longer wears a belt, either. He often has to hike his pants up as he walks but he doesn’t want anything that will add even an ounce to his body. He says he likes feeling light.

I find myself carrying more since we left: I keep my teudat zehut in the same pocket it was in every time I went through the container checkpoint. In my wallet, I still keep my Israeli driving license, my Israeli health insurance card, my bus pass, an expired Tel Aviv Cinematheque subscription card, and the 90 shekel credit for the bookstore in Jerusalem.

On the best days, I feel optimistic. Though we’ve been in the States for over a year now and I have yet to find gainful employment in either of my professional fields—and have blown through most of my meager savings—on these days, I’m certain that something will work out eventually. I’ll find my place, I’ll make friends, I’ll build a life here.

On the worst days, tears come for no reason. Evenings tend to be difficult. I realize it’s another day that I didn’t run with Dima and I didn’t go to the university where I would have spent the morning with my students, helping them hone their writing skills. Nights are hard when I realize a whole day has passed and I haven’t spoken any Hebrew or Arabic. I think about the time I invested in both languages, the years I spent building a life there. Almost a decade, tossed out the window on the way to Ben Gurion Airport.

I’m angry about a political situation that made it impossible for us to have a normal life there in the West Bank. I’m angry about the impact that the political situation has made on the Palestinian economy, making it hard for Mohammad to find decent, steady work that would afford us a modest, simple existence. I’m angry that his family has suffered under the occupation—that his father was deported from the West Bank, that cousins have gone to Israeli jails, that Jewish soldiers have raided uncles’ homes, that a cousin died while he was in an Israeli prison, that two cousins have been shot to death by soldiers during the most recent wave of violence. I’m angry that all of this happened and I’m angry that we’re paying a price for their suffering. I’m angry that we had no choice but to leave.

I’m lonely. And because I’m lonely, I join Facebook, something I’d resisted for years. But it doesn’t help. I scroll through it and see both Palestinians and Israelis with foreign partners— foreigners who can live legally on visas or permanent residency with their spouses in the land while my Palestinian husband and I, a citizen of Israel, cannot remain together on either side of the Green Line. Hafuch alhafuch alhafuch.

On one of the worst nights, Mohammad and I lie on our 50-dollar-Goodwill couch, head to foot.

“Close your eyes,” I say. “We’re in the garden again, in Bethlehem.”

He smiles.

“The wind is blowing and we smell the jasmine and the lemon tree and the mishmish baladi,” I say. “We pick mishmish and we don’t bother to wash it, we just bite right into it. The juice drips off our chins. We wipe it off with the back of our hands. We sit on the bench and look out over the orchard.”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and I swear—just for a second—I can feel the wind coming up from the valley, I can smell the earth from the freshly-tilled orchard below, I can hear the grape leaves stirring above.

“We’re home.”

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    1. Richard Lightbown

      Beautiful writing.

      Write the book. Make some money.

      Reply to Comment